Friday, September 28, 2012

Sweet Memories of a Smile, a Song, a Favorite Story

Dad with my baby sister Erin, me in the middle, and my sister Belinda.

For ten years I have interviewed and filmed hospice patients for video legacies, sometimes at the patient’s request, but more often at the family’s.  Many times I have been contacted after the patient was already in the grip of dementia, heavily medicated, or so depressed that they couldn’t participate.  When this was the case, I came away with very little useable footage despite spending hour upon hour with the patient.

Because of this, I have become an evangelist of sorts, telling people how important it is to record their grandmother’s beautiful smile while she is still healthy and happy.  No one wants to remember a loved one during the saddest time of his or her life.  Better to film grandpa fishing with his grandsons, or grandma picking blueberries with her granddaughters, or sitting side-by-side on the sofa talking about the good old days.  We all have those cherished stories that no matter how many times we hear them, we still want to hear them again.  The ones that are recycled endlessly at family reunions and holiday get-togethers, yet still make us laugh or cry after countless retellings.

Ironically, I did not practice what I am now preaching.  In 2006 I lost Dad to pancreatic cancer.  Although I have many photographs, I would give anything to hear his voice again singing Danny Boy three sheets to the wind, or recounting my favorite stories about his early childhood in a Catholic boys home and later, when he and his brothers grew up wild and poor on a farm in upstate New York.  It seemed as if every single moment after he was diagnosed was consumed by doctor visits, tests, radiation and chemotherapy, crestfallen visits from relatives, and finally hospice.  He was overwhelmed, frightened, emotionally distraught.  It just didn’t seem right to ask him to reminisce on film, so I didn’t.

At Thanksgiving this year, take the video camera you use for your kids’ soccer games and recitals and spend a little time recording your older relatives.  I bet they’ll tell you things about your family history that you’ve never heard before, things that could be lost to posterity if you don't catch them on film.  Ask them about things mundanely precious... the moment they first saw their husband or wife, where and when they realized it was love.  Ask them vague questions; I found these bring out the most unexpected responses.  What brought them the most joy in life?  What was their greatest disappointment?  Greatest triumph?

Because of confidentiality agreements all hospice volunteers sign, I cannot tell you the specifics of my interviews, but I can say I often think about the people I was privileged to know at an intensely vulnerable time in their lives.  There was one in particular who, although elderly, was still sharp as a tack.  I spent four hours with her, laughing and crying and learning about her long, fascinating life and how proud she was of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  Despite the small amount of time I spent with her, I thought of her as a friend.  

As I was packing up my gear, she told me if she got to heaven and discovered her husband had another wife, I should expect a thunderstorm the likes of which the Earth had never seen.  She had waited for him for thirty years, and he better have returned the favor.  She laughed when she said it, but there was a martial gleam in her eyes.

I was going to share filming tips and techniques, but this post is already too long.  If you’d like to know the finer points of creating video legacies, send questions to  The most important things to know are 1) use a tripod with a smooth swivel arm; DO NOT hold the camera in your hand 2) find a comfortable, uncluttered, well-lit spot and 3) threaten your children with bodily harm if they make noise while you’re taping, or better yet, send them outside to play.

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  1. I have often been reminded what a blessing it is to be invited into a person's process of dying. What you do is a wonderful gift to the family, that you do it is a gift upon you from the dying. May you live in peace.

    1. Thank you, Maria. I can honestly say I have received more than I have given.

  2. What a fabulous photo!!